On June 28, 1863, General George Gordon Meade woke to find officers around his cot. At that early morning hour, he assumed he was under arrest. That army politics had finally caught up with him. Instead, the news was possibly more alarming. The commander of the Union’s Army of the Potomac — Joseph Hooker — had resigned…and President Lincoln ordered Meade to take command.
He had no way of knowing as he blinked at the future that in just three full days, the stage would be set for the battle of Gettysburg. What Meade did know centered on his new army strung out over roads and at locations he had not been allowed to know hours before when he was only a corps commander. What Meade also knew was the promotion to army command was a shock.
Indeed, three days earlier on June 25, 1863, he had written to his wife, explaining:
I see you are still troubled with visions of my being placed in command. I thought that had all blown over, and I think it has, except in your imagination, and that of some others of my kind friends. I have no doubt great efforts have been made to get McClellan back, and advantage has been taken of the excitement produced by the invasion of Maryland to push his claims…
They could not say I was an unprincipled intriguer, who had risen by criticising and defaming my predecessors and superiors. They could not say I was incompetent, because I have not been tried, and so far as I have been tried I have been singularly successful. They could not say I had never been under fire, because it is notorious no general officer, not even Fighting Joe himself, has been in more battles, or more exposed, than my record evidences. The only thing they can say, and I am willing to admit the justice of the argument, is that it remains to be seen whether I have the capacity to handle successfully a large army. I do not stand, however, any chance, because I have no friends, political or others, who press or advance my claims or pretensions, and there are so many others who are pressed by influential politicians that it is folly to think I stand any chance upon mere merit alone. Besides, I have not the vanity to think my capacity so pre-eminent, and I know there are plenty of others equally competent with myself, though their names may not have been so much mentioned. For these reasons I have never indulged in any dreams of ambition, contented to await events, and do my duty in the sphere it pleases God to place me in, and I really think it would be as well for you to take the same philosophical view; but do you know, I think your ambition is being roused and that you are beginning to be bitten with the dazzling prospect of having for a husband a commanding general of an army. How is this?
On many levels, the quick awakening for Meade on the morning of June 28 proved to be surprising, maybe even shocking. With the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia already deep into the Pennsylvania countryside and the Federal army trying to catch up, Meade awoke to a vast series of problems. His new “duty in the sphere it pleases God to place me” looked very different than his predictions days earlier even as it would look different from where he would find himself three days later: trying to make sense of the reports he received from near a town called Gettysburg.